4.3 Stella! Social Media and Affective Content in the Context of a Major Snowstorm

Tuesday, 9 January 2018: 9:00 AM
Ballroom F (ACC) (Austin, Texas)
Adam M. Rainear, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs, CT; and K. A. Lachlan

Introduction & Literature Review:

Prior to a weather event occurring, individuals are typically interested in seeking out information to better understand what will occur and how to minimalize the potential for harm (Reynolds & Seeger, 2005). New media platforms have gained traction as being useful outlets for communication and information during times of risk or crisis. Social media is one such tool which has become useful communication during risk and crises events. Early research found little use of new media platforms during certain natural disasters (Spence et al., 2005; Spence, Lachlan, & Burke, 2008), but in today’s technological environment, users are afforded a constant feed of nearly immediate updates almost always at their fingertips.

More recently, Twitter has emerged as a popular platform for seeking content and information during crises and risk events (Armstrong & Gao, 2010; Sutton, Palen, & Shklovski, 2008; Westerman, Spence, & Van Der Heide, 2012). While researchers are beginning to better understand the usefulness of this tool, there exist areas which could benefit from further investigation. For example, Sutton and colleagues (2008) found that users turned to social media during wildfires in California (in 2007) because they believed public officials were not providing the necessary or beneficial information. While users turned to Twitter to acquire that information, it also provided an additional outlet for them to display and express negative feelings or affect about the situation.

Following Fink’s model of a crisis lifecycle (1986), the prodromal stage is the proactive stage of an impending crisis, where individuals identify a potential impending crisis. Thus, information during this stage should be disseminated with a proactive eye, rather than reactive – and an impending crisis can serve as a threat and opportunity (Massey & Larsen, 2006). A sizable body of research has suggested that during the prodromal stage of a major weather event, social media will be used more as a tool for expressions of affect and community building that it will for the distribution of useful information. Emergency managers, practitioners, and forecasters consider this the model stage to engage in action, proactive behaviors, and disseminating informational messages related to the impending crisis or event.

Spence and colleagues (2015) investigated the variability in content across the stages of a natural disaster (Hurricane Sandy). The authors note that they found “a rather unsettling pattern of available information during the prodromal stage leading up to…Hurricane Sandy” (p. 180). Utilizing the search term “#sandy” led to informational content and behavioral recommendations being difficult to locate. In addition, at latter stages of the event the information became even more difficult to locate via searching, as more and more affective displays about Sandy were being expressed on the platform. Similarly, the most useful and important information is available the two days prior to the storm, but again this information becomes buried by affective displays as the event becomes more real and closer to affecting the Tweeting population.


While valuable, this research is based largely on social media content collected using naïve hashtag searches, and subsequent human coder assessments of the content. Furthermore, they fail to consider the fact that more sophisticated users may be inclined to rely on feeds from emergency management agencies. To address each of these shortcomings, the current study will examine Twitter content collected in the days leading up to and after the landfall of Winter Storm Stella (or Eugene in CT) in March 2017. A total of 68,905 tweets were collected using both hashtag searches and searches for emergency management agencies in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. The Twitter content will be evaluated using Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC; Pennebaker, Francis, & Booth, 2001) to investigate the frequency and type of affective displays revealed using each of these search tactics. The data for each search set will also be subject to a simple network analysis, in order to evaluate any emerging opinions leaders and corroborate them with content type.


The LIWC data concerning affective content will be used to evaluate typical emotional reactions and the need (if any) to alleviate fears and provide information concerning tangible, behavioral steps that can be used to reduce uncertainty. The network analytic data will be used to identify organic opinion leaders within the networks, so that similar individuals can be identified for future interventions. Findings will be discussed in terms of implications for both common citizens seeking information about major weather events and emergency management officials responding to them.


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Fink, S. (1986). Crisis management: Planning for the inevitable. American Management Association.

Massey, J., & Larsen, J. (2006). Crisis management in real time: How to successfully plan for

and respond to a crisis. Journal of Promotion Management, 12(3/4), 63-97.

Pennebaker, J.W., Francis, R.J., & Booth, R.J.. (2001). Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC): A computerized text analysis program. Mahwah, NJ: Earlbaum.

Reynolds, B., & Seeger, M. W., (2005). Crisis and emergency risk communication as an integrative model. Journal of Health Communication, 10 (1), 43-55.

Spence, P.R., Lachlan, K.A., & Burke, J. (2008). Crisis preparation, media use, and information seeking: Patterns across Katrina evacuees and lessons learned for crisis communication. Journal of Emergency Management, 6 (1), 11-23.

Spence, P. R., Lachlan, K. A., Lin, X., & del Greco, M. (2015). Variability in Twitter content across the stages of a natural disaster: Implications for crisis communication. Communication Quarterly, 63 (2), 171-186.

Sutton, J., Palen, L., & Shklovski, I. (2008, May). Backchannels on the front lines: Emergent uses of social media in the 2007 Southern California wildfires. Proceedings of the 5th International ISCRAM Conference, Washington, DC.

Westerman, D. W., Spence, P. R., & Van Der Heide, B. (2012) A social network as information: The effect of system generated reports of connectedness on credibility and health care information on twitter. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 199-206.

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